by Gayle Harris (gayleharris2(at)juno.com)
It's not my favorite chore. Central Texas. Mid-August. I walked among the dead, dying and wounded and tallied my landscaping losses. Geraniums, gone. Petunias - are you kidding? Rudbeckia, rather wrinkly. Even my buddy Salvia was in pain. I dragged a Hefty bag behind me, my sad load growing bulkier with wizened stems, bedraggled blooms, and crispy roots. Overwhelmed by the destruction, I fell to my knees, clenched my fist and cried, "As God is my witness, I'll never garden in Texas again!"
But then I saw them-the survivors. The ones who keep going despite the heat, the killer sun, the winds that toss them around like socks in a Maytag. These are the camels of the plant world, able to go long intervals without a drink and still keep plodding along toward the oasis of autumn. As much as I love my roses, begonias, and daisies, my grateful admiration belongs to the following three toughies.
Lantana. I've said it before, and I'll say it again-this is the drought-tolerant perennial for me, and it's become the meat and potatoes of my garden. I've had the best of luck with New Gold-a show-stopping blaze of yellow-but I'm also fond of my Irene, purchased, I admit, because it's my middle name. A myriad of varieties exist, with colors to please everyone and growth habits for any space. Butterflies adore the flowering clusters despite its rugged foliage and pungent scent, and it will bloom off and on (mostly on) all summer. I cut them back when they get leggy (mine are all over three feet wide), and they perform for me again in the fall.
Who wouldn't love a plant like this? The deer (I say triumphantly). Why don't I have more Lantana? Because I'm impatient; this one usually doesn't get started in central Texas until late spring, sometimes even June, depending on what kind of winter it's been. But it's well worth the wait when you're rewarded with color through Thanksgiving. It will look dreadful after the first freeze, and you'll want to quickly cut it back because the carnage is unsightly. Tuck trimmed twigs in with a winter coverlet of mulch, and it will pop up again at first warmth. That said, I've had Lantana freeze on me but these were new plants and not well established. Once they're in there for a year or two, you'll have them forever. As a matter of fact, it's almost impossible to destroy one once it decides to adopt you.
Zinnia angustifolia (Z. linearis). My babies! I can't recommend these sunny, perky performers highly enough. Also called spreading Zinnias, or narrow-leaf Zinnias, I've seen otherwise good-natured garden folk get grabby over these in the nursery, especially when supplies are low. Obviously, the word is out on these little favorites. These are cousins to our larger, single Zinnias, except they have a wandering habit and grow in happy profusion to about 8-12 inches in height. I've enjoyed Star Gold, Crystal White, and Star Orange, receiving many compliments on the brilliance of the latter. But it would be hard for me to pick a favorite. They don't mind going thirsty, live to sunbathe at high noon, and they're not susceptible to mold, which seems to always claim my standard Zinnias once the humidity sets in.
I once tried to start some from seed, but I've had better results with the transplants. Best of all, I've had them reappear the next spring, even though they're officially classified as an annual. Every year at this time, I swear to myself that this is the only thing I'm going to plant, even if I have to mug somebody at the checkout line to get them.
Cosmos. I was really surprised when a good friend told me that she couldn't grow Cosmos. I felt guilty reporting to her that all I did was haphazardly throw out the seeds, more as a hasty afterthought than a real planting. I started my affair with the rosy tones of Sensation, but am now stuck on Bright Lights since I seem to have a strong yellow/orange theme going in my beds.
These are light and breezy swaying dancers, with pinwheel, quintessential flower faces. But fragile they're not - they can stand a full day of sun and still look fresh as a, well, Cosmos. I've had my Bright Lights grow tall, up to two feet, with several offshoots of wide blooms on a single stem. When the show is over, I pluck off the brown, needle-like seeds and scatter them in earth mother fashion wherever I'd like Cosmos to appear. Soon. It seems I've always got a supply of them in various stages of growth, either scattered by me or blown by the wind, and I don't know why they're not more popular. Neighbors always ask me what they are, and can't believe something this gorgeous is so easy to grow. This is another one that deer will pass over, although I've seen them bite off a few just to be mean.
It's time to start planning for winter, putting away a few tools, stacking empty pots and throwing away ragged gloves. Won't be long before my options will be limited to pansies, mums and pumpkin vines. But what's the rush when I can relax and enjoy my hardy summer survivors? I'll think of my autumn chores tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.